WILLISTON, N.D. – Getting mail delivered in the Bakken is a frustration for some, but for recent college graduate Dave VanAssche, it inspired his entrepreneurial spirit.
The 26-year-old moved to Williston two years ago from Washington state after he couldn’t find work in his field of accounting and finance.
“The competition for the entry-level positions is so fierce,” VanAssche said.
He spent his first four months in Williston working in accounts receivable for an oil company, where he had his mail delivered because he lived in an RV and didn’t have a physical address in Williston.
After noticing that many of his co-workers also had mail delivered to the office, and talking to a mail carrier about how the U.S. Postal Service was struggling to keep up with the area’s rapid growth, VanAssche decided to turn that challenge into a business opportunity.
He left his job and started MailBox Solutions Plus with less than $4,000, renting his first location from a local radio station.
“Out of a 10-by-10 room, I started renting mailboxes,” VanAssche said.
The U.S. Postal Service, which at times has had waiting lists for P.O. box rentals in Williston and other area towns, requires people to prove they have a local address to qualify for a P.O. box.
But for job seekers who move to the Bakken and live in cars, campers or other temporary housing, they can’t qualify and they don’t have a local address to list on job applications.
At MailBox Solutions, customers can get a Williston address even if they stay in their car.
“It’s exciting that so many people have benefited from having a physical address,” VanAssche said.
The business has grown in Williston to a permanent location with about 600 mailboxes, and a second store is opening in Watford City in February.
The mailboxes cost $20 a month to rent, with cheaper rates available for long-term rentals.
MailBox Solutions Plus pays a fee to the post office to get preferential treatment when mail is sorted, so customers receive their mail by about noon every day. They also accept packages from UPS, FedEx and other delivery services.
“It costs more, but people get a lot more,” VanAssche said.
VanAssche uses technology to solve some of the challenges of working in the Bakken.
For example, workers who spend all day in the field don’t want to stop and check empty mailboxes. So VanAssche developed a system that sends “You’ve got mail” text messages to customers when they get mail or packages.
As the business has grown, finding enough staff who can afford housing in Williston has become more of a challenge. Recently VanAssche began employing a customer service representative who lives in Southern California and uses technology to answer phones in Williston, give directions to the store and renew mailboxes for customers.
VanAssche is testing a mail kiosk he’s developing that could allow people to mail packages 24 hours a day with the help of a webcam and a remote customer service representative.
“This whole business has been driven by technology since day one,” VanAssche said. “It’s turning something so old and archaic into something cool and techy and useful again.”